ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A display of moon rocks that disappeared from an Alaska museum after an arson fire nearly four decades ago has been returned to the state following the settlement of a lawsuit by a man who claimed he rescued the rocks from the rubble.
State and federal officials at a news conference Thursday displayed the returned relic — tiny moon rocks encased in a golf ball-size acrylic glass ball and mounted on a walnut plaque above a small Alaska flag that traveled to the moon aboard Apollo 11.
President Richard Nixon presented the plaque to Alaska Gov. Keith Miller in 1969. It was on display at the Alaska Transportation Museum in 1973 when an arsonist torched the building. Witnesses remembered seeing the plaque intact, but it disappeared until the foster son of the transportation museum director made a claim of ownership in 2010.
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Coleman Anderson, a vessel captain who appeared in early episodes of the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch," said he had rescued the moon rocks. He sued for clear title but said he would be willing to sell them to the state. State officials questioned Anderson's account and countersued.
"We were eventually able to persuade the plaintiff that he should dismiss this case," said Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick, who compiled evidence in the lawsuit.
The state was armed with witness accounts that the moon rocks survived the fire and were not lumped with debris.
"Many times I feel that plaintiffs are asking for the moon," Slotnick said. "This is the first time that that was literally true."
Anderson's attorney, Daniel P. Harris, said from Seattle that Anderson wanted a determination of the rocks' ownership and authenticity. Like anyone, Harris said, Anderson would've liked to be paid.
"He recovered those moon rocks. Without him, who knows where they could be or whether they would exist today. But in the end, the state was unwilling to pay any reward," Harris said. "It just was not worth Coleman's time or money to fight the state on that."
Anderson, who now lives in Texas, relinquished his claim to the rocks in September. Alaska State Museum curator of collections Steve Henrikson took possession of the plaque Wednesday and flew it to Alaska.
He said the rocks will be displayed at the State Museum through December and likely will be made available for showings around Alaska.
Nixon believed it took an effort by the entire world to put a man on the moon, and he gave moon rocks collected by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren to every state and country, Henrikson said.
Alaska is not the only recipient of Nixon's generosity that has lost track of its moon rocks. Nicaragua's ended up with a Las Vegas collector. A sample given to Ireland may have been buried with debris from a fire. And a moon rock at a natural history museum on the island nation of Malta was stolen.
Anderson was 17 when fire destroyed the transportation museum. His stepfather was Phil Redden, the curator. Anderson claimed he entered the "debris area" as crews removed garbage, discovered the moon rock plaque covered by melted materials, and took it home.
State risk manager John George recorded seeing the rocks undamaged. A former museum employee, Janie Barry, testified in a deposition that she, too, saw that rocks intact. She said she saw Redden, the curator, leave the damaged building with the moon rocks and that he intended to take them home for safekeeping.
The FBI used photographic analysis to confirm Anderson's display was the one Nixon had handed to Gov. Miller.
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